Which Gender is God?

Image by Wikipedia user Pschemp

I remember one day when I was growing up, I was riding in the family minivan. My mom pointed to a bumper sticker on the car in front of us that said something along the lines of, “God is coming back, and boy is she mad.”

That may have been one of the first times in my life that I ever really considered the question, “Which gender is God?” By “God”, I mean specifically the Christian God described in the Bible, not any god in general. In the vast array of religions that have come and gone throughout world history, we have seen plenty of gods – some male, some female, and some gender neutral. But what gender is the God of the Bible? Does the God of the Bible have a gender?

There are really four possible answers to these questions…yes, four and not three. First, God might be male. Second, God might be female. Third, God might not have a gender at all. And fourth (wait for it!), God might be both male and female.

Let’s consider the evidence presented in scripture. If we want to go for the exceedingly obvious, you can open your Bible and see God described using the masculine pronoun: “He”, “Him”, or “His” in English. That does suggest a certain degree of masculinity. However, things get a bit trickier from there. You see, there is gender in a biological sense and gender in a philological sense. What I mean by that should be clear to anyone who has ever studied a foreign language.

You see, the English language has essentially dropped the grammatical concept of gender. Our nouns are not “masculine” or “feminine” apart from those that specifically refer to something male or female. In many other languages, any noun can have a gender. For example, in Spanish, the word for pen is “pluma”. This is a feminine noun, so it takes the feminine article “la” and becomes “la pluma” (“the pen”). English does not have different masculine and feminine articles. We just use the word “the” for everything. German has three possible definite articles: “der”, “die”, and “das”. What is important to realize in all of this is that even though a word may be masculine or feminine in a grammatical sense, it does not necessarily have a gender in the biological sense, i.e. a pen is not really female.

The Bible was originally written in three different languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. The latter occurs mostly in the book of Daniel, so it is really Hebrew and Greek that concern us. These two languages come from different families: Hebrew is a Semitic language and Greek is Indo-European. Their systems of grammar have some important differences. Unfortunately, as I am not fluent in either one, I am in no position to outline all of those differences. Perhaps that is for the best, as I would have bored you in any case.

Here is where things start to get complicated. The Christian God is a Triune God made up of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In any language, “father” and “son” are going to be masculine words, differentiated from “mother” and “daughter”. But what about the word “spirit”?

The Hebrew word for spirit is “ruah”, a feminine noun. The Greek word that we translate as spirit is “pneuma”, a neuter noun in that language. These facts can be easily lost on those who are reading the Bible in English. They would have particularly been lost on those who were reading the Bible in Latin for centuries upon centuries, because the Latin word “spiritus” (from whence comes the English “spirit”) is a masculine noun.

So which pronoun should we assign to the Holy Spirit? On the whole, modern English versions of the Bible go with the term “he”, but the King James Version on occasion has the pronoun “it”. In this case, the KJV might actually be the more literal translation from the Greek, for as I noted, the word “spirit” is neuter in that language. I don’t know of any translation that goes so far as to refer to the Spirit as “she” in the Old Testament, where the Hebrew noun is feminine.

I do not fault the translators in these cases. As I have noted, grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender, and the same word can have a different grammatical gender in different languages. Conflating the two concepts can be very deceiving, as in one classic German example. In that language, “the girl” is “das Mädchen”, with “das” being the neuter article. Now, I think we would all agree that a girl does have a gender, and that gender is female, as evidenced by the fact that we call her a girl and not a boy. This led to a great quote from Mark Twain that I simply have to share:

In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

“The Awful German Language”, A Tramp Abroad

Therefore, my argument is not that we need to change our Bible translations to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she” in the Old Testament and “it” in the New Testament. Rather, I am denying that we can make any assumptions about the gender of any of the three persons of the Trinity based on the grammatical gender of their titles in Hebrew or Greek. That would be the same as concluding that all flags are female because someone says, “Why, look at that flag! How proudly she waves!”

In order to determine God’s gender – or if indeed God has a gender – we need to look beyond the mere issue of pronouns. We need to examine what scripture actually says about God. Now, you will be hard pressed to find the phrase “God is male,” or “God is female,” anywhere in the Bible. Otherwise, this would be a much simpler issue. We can say for certain that the Incarnate Christ was male in his human nature. That is a biological reality. Any other biological reality is hard to come by when you are talking about God.

Over the years, people have looked at some of God’s attributes and determined that they were either “male” or “female”. For example, when the Psalmist says that the Lord is “mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8), that is seen by many as a decidedly male attribute. However, we later see the Psalmist say that, “He will cover you with His pinions.” (Psalm 91:4) A pinion is a feather, so the image being evoked is that of a mother bird protecting her young. That sure sounds feminine, although the use of the pronoun “he” rather negates it in English.

I personally think that trying to sort these descriptors of God into piles of “male” attributes and “female” attributes is a fool’s errand. The reason for this is that while the biological aspect of gender is the same in every place and time, the cultural aspects of gender vary greatly depending on where you happen to be living and in what period of history. What it means for a man to be “masculine” or for a woman to be “feminine” may be quite different in the United States, Russia, and Japan. That is not to say that there is no absolute truth with regard to gender: it is, after all, a biological reality.

However, the way that reality gets expressed may be slightly different depending on where you are. Some cultures would consider a group of naked men taking a bath together perfectly normal. Some would consider it homoerotic. A woman’s hairstyle can likewise send a cultural signal, but that signal may have been different in the early 20th century or the Middle Ages than it is today. In contrast, God’s attributes are God’s attributes eternally, and in God is found the very definition of goodness. Therefore, if God possesses an attribute, such as holiness, we must conclude not that holiness is masculine or feminine, but rather that it is godly.

This leads me into a rather important point that is inescapable when considering God’s gender. Any effort to assign a gender to God revolves around taking a human concept – that is, the biological reality of gender – and throwing it back upon the divine. I am going to suggest two reasons why this is problematic. The first is that God, with the exception of the Incarnate Son of God, does not have a body.

Consider what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Scripture draws a clear line between the physical body, which is mortal, and the soul or spirit, which is immortal. (There is a long-standing theological debate over whether the soul and spirit are separate entities, and I do not intend to address that here.) People in the first century did not have a hard time grasping this concept. Indeed, many of them took it too far, believing that the body was fully bad and the spirit fully good, therefore God could not have really become incarnate in an evil human body. Christ did take on a human nature in addition to his divine nature, but he made clear in this statement that God is eternally spirit. He does not have a physical body. This is why the Apostle Paul described God as “invisible” (Romans 1:20, Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17).

If God does not have a biological essence – that is, a physical body – then speaking of him in terms of something inherently biological is not particularly helpful and could lead us into error. Yet, because we are limited in our understanding and confined to the material, physical world, our natural instinct is to try to transfer that physical understanding back onto God. We must strive to avoid this.

The second reason is closely related to the first. The very first chapter of scripture tells us, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Pay close attention to what is happening here. Although there is some debate over the exact implication of the words translated in English as “image of God”, we cannot deny the fact that it is God who is placing His image on us, not the other way around. Not only that, but His image is born by both males and females. Some people may try to deny this. They may point to the first part of the verse and say, “See, it only says ‘man’!” Well, what about the second part of the verse? What about the words “male and female”?

“Adam and Eve in paradise (The Fall)” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1533

In interpreting this verse, we must also pay close attention to the actual Hebrew words that are being used. The word translated “man” in the first part of the verse is actually “adam”, the root of Adam’s name. This term is almost always translated into English as “man”, although it occasionally is translated as “person”. The reason for this is that the word can mean not only “man” but also “mankind”. I take the following definition from the rather authoritative Strong’s concordance: “אָדַם ʼâdam, aw-dam’; ruddy i.e. a human being (an individual or the species, mankind, etc.)”[1] The words translated as “male” and “female” in the latter half of the verse, on the other hand, are clearly gender specific. Thus, the author of Genesis is saying that all of mankind was made in the image of God, both male and female.

So which gender reflects God’s image: male or female? The answer is that both do. More importantly, it is God who is reflected in us and not the other way around. Yet, there is one passage of scripture that is often raised to make a dent in this point, and we really ought to address it. I am thinking of that time when Paul said, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)

This passage is commonly interpreted in the following way: Christ is in authority over humans. Men are in authority over women. God the Father is in authority over God the Son.

The extension upon this point is that the relationship between men and women mirrors that between God the Father and God the Son. As God the Son is alike in dignity with the Father but in a state of submission, so women are of equal value but submit to men. However, this is an incorrect reading of the text, and I shall tell you why.

First, there is the problem of the exact meaning of the words, which is uncertain. The Greek word for head used here – kephale – can certainly imply authority, but it can also have the connotation of “source”. Let’s ask ourselves: Would 1 Corinthians 11:3 make sense if the meaning of “kephale” was closer to “source”?

Well, is Christ the source of every human life? Yes, see John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16. Is man the source of woman? Yes, for the first woman was “taken out of Man”. (Genesis 1:21-23) Is God the Father the source of God the Son? Well, if you hold that the Son was eternally begotten, in line with the Nicene Creed and Psalm 2:7, John chapter 1, John 3:16, and 1 John 4:9, then you could certainly make such a statement. I am not denying that there is some aspect of authority involved in the word that is translated “head”, but I think we need to exercise some caution.

Consider also that the words translated as “man” and “woman” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 could just as easily be translated “husband” and “wife”. Indeed, the Greek words are translated both ways at different points in our English New Testament. This adds another layer of ambiguity. Later on in the passage, Paul makes some further comments that seem to line up as well with the “source” connotation as they do with the “authority” connotation, if not better.

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

1 Corinthians 11:7-12

Do not get too caught up at this point over what kind of head covering Paul is talking about, when exactly it is supposed to be worn, or why in the world he would say “because of the angels”. Consider the deeper theological points being made. Yes, man was created first. Yes, Eve was created to be a helper or “help meet” for Adam. Yet, in Christ, both genders are dependent on one another. The first woman came from a man, but every man since then has come from a woman.

Perhaps at this point you have come to agree with me that the semantics in this case make the claim of a connection between the man/woman dynamic and the Father/Son dynamic rather difficult. However, completely apart from the linguistic argument, there is a more important reason why this is poor logic.

If we are going to claim that there is a one-to-one correlation between the relationships of husbands and wives on the one hand, and the relationship between God the Father and God the Son on the other, then we create as many problems as we solve. Just to pick one, does this mean that the Son is essentially female and the Father is essentially male? Perhaps someone will say, “No, not everything is an exact reflection of the human reality,” to which I would reply, “You just made my point.”

Here’s another problem: we’ve just mutilated the Trinity. Oh, poor Holy Spirit! Always the third wheel! While God the Father and God the Son are off having their perfectly happy, marriage-like, submitter and submittee relationship, what is the Holy Spirit to do? How does He (or it, or what have you) fit into the equation?

I would submit that the analogy between human marriage and the Trinity is rather like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. We have one relationship with two people and another with three people. That should be our first clue that the two relationships are not entirely correlated. In fact, scripture does draw an analogy regarding marriage, but it has nothing to do with the Trinity. Rather, it has to do with Christ and the Church.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Ephesians 5:25-32

Paul makes the comparison in that passage not once, not twice, but three times. Why are we so quick then to make an analogy with the Trinity (or at least 2/3 of the Trinity) rather than Christ and His Bride? Perhaps in this world where the concept of gender seems up for debate, we are trying very hard to root our Christian definition of gender in what God Himself has revealed. That is a good thing, but I think we are looking in the wrong place.

Keep in mind, it is not wrong to suggest that a wife should submit to her husband. After all, that is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” But what rationale does he then give for the wife’s submission? “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:23-24)

Perhaps I have gone down a bit of a rabbit trail here. After all, the supposed purpose of this article was to determine God’s gender, or if God has a gender. I assure you, I only camp on this point to make perfectly clear how every effort to impose gender distinctions on God, however well meaning, is ultimately unhelpful and, more to the point, incorrect.

God does not have a gender. He has never had a gender. Ah, but didn’t I just use the word “He”? Yes, I did, because that is the pronoun used in scripture. God reveals Himself to us as Father and Son, two male terms, and Spirit, which does not have a clear gender. Therefore, the pronoun “He” is at least as good as any. In addition, since English language versions of the Bible have almost always used the pronoun “He”, changing it to something else creates the concern that there is some deeper doctrinal change afoot, i.e. trying to read the Bible in a feminist or liberal manner. I doubt that this is what the translators of the King James Version intended when they called God the Spirit “it” a few times, but I grant that word choice is important and serves as a signal to others of what one truly believes. I would not want to send the wrong signal.

Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction that God does not have a gender. Rather, gender is a biological reality present in physical beings. It does not apply to spiritual beings. Someone might ask, “So are you saying that angels don’t have a gender?” Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Jesus even seemed to hint that way when he spoke of the state of humans after death. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30)

When we assign God a gender, we attempt to anthropomorphize Him. Translation: we attempt to remake Him in our own image, either male or female. God is beyond time, beyond matter, beyond human comprehension!

So returning to our four original possibilities…1) God is male. 2) God is female. 3) God is neither male nor female. 4) God is both male and female.

Having examined the evidence, we must conclude that #1 and #2 are clearly wrong, #3 is by far the best answer, and #4 is only sort of passible if you mean it in the sense that both male and female reflect the image of God. Whatever conclusion we come to, the gravest error is to attempt to make God like us. We should be striving instead to be conformed to the image of Christ.

All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H120&t=KJV